Childhood: in The Novel David Copperfield

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      It is a difficult task for any novelist to deal successfully with the life of a child as the center of his art. Only a genius is capable of delineating the child's mind and make a success of it. The novelist has got to be as simple as a child in his temperament to understand the psyche of a child and yet have the skill of an artist. Shakespeare and Blake have hinted at the possibilities for romance and pathos in the depiction of childhood but neither of them makes children the central figure of the action. Though Lewis Carroll succeeds in bringing out the mystery of the child mind in his book Alice in Wonderland, he fails to reveal its grief and terrors. James Joyce, on the other hand, in his remarkable book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man reveals the unhappiness of children but not its joys and loves. It is Dickens alone who could draw his children's characters sympathetically and convincingly. He seems to be the only author who truly possesses a child-like vision of the world and is at the same time profound as a creative artist.

"Little Boy Lost"

      Dickens may be compared with Blake, the first structure of the theme of the "little boy lost"; of the child's elemental emotions and trust being violated by the ideas and institutions of modem life. Dickens, however, proved more successful in dealing with this modem theme. The memories of his childhood days helped him greatly to give a true picture of the inner world of a child. The first fourteen chapters of David Copperfield bear ample proof of his extraordinary understanding of the child mind. He accurately records the mechanism of a child's mind. Dickens did not believe in describing a child from an adult's point of view. He had a knack of becoming a child while depicting a child. He had a rare insight which is hard to come by in any other author handling the same sort of material.

Memories of Childhood

      Dickens could not easily forget his own experiences as child. The sorrows and joys of his childhood were always fresh in his memory Thus he was able to present them with the curiosity or zeal and energy of a young child. Moreover, his imagination worked upon his intense, child-like vision of the world to produce something which was rich and unique in the field of literature "steeped in atmosphere, now dark and touched with a sinister magic, now bright with pity and kindness, now radiant with the most enchanting high spirits."

      It is only Dickens who could tell the story of a boy as a boy would tell it. "A boy would remember every brutal syllable in every brutal sentence. He would remember it to his dying day. Nothing is in Dickens more palpably true than the exactness with which he reproduces the intense sensitivity of childhood. Like David he remembered it all; the poignant sense of vanity in the griefs and disasters of boyhood, the feeling that what is done or undone can never be made up for; that a joy missed, a pleasure ruined, is something irretrievable." (Walter Allen).

Psyche of a Child

      Dickens's insight into the mind of a child is really remarkable. In one of the passages in the novel David relates how his ideas about Steerforth and the other schoolboys is formed by his study of their carvings on the door near the playground. George Orwell has made a very apt comment on this particular passage. "When I read this passage as a child, it seemed to me that those were exactly the pictures that those particular names would call up."

      The picture of Mr. Creakle's school gives up the essential features of school life and allows us a glimpse of the working of a child's mind. Steerforth's domination, David's devotion to him, Traddles's dislike of him and the cynical contempt with which the young students view the sycophantic Mr. Creakle are typical traits in children. Their arrogant contempt for the kind but poor Mr. Mell is also in accordance with their nature. To quote Walter Allen again, "The difference between the chapters on the Murdstone persecution and the boy's experiences later, are thoroughly in character. The boy will be sure to make a god and a hero of the older boy who deigns to be his friend and protector. Steerforth will be all that is gallant and chivalrous, and the world will go upside down before David will be forced to admit that his idol is hollow."

      There is a remarkable instance in David Copperfield of Dickens's unique power to penetrate the mind of a child. It is the description of David's satisfaction at his school friends' excitement when he informs them of his mother's death: "When I could cry no more, I began to think; and then the oppression on my breast was heaviest and my grief a dull pain that there was no ease for."

      "And yet my thoughts were idle; not intent on the calamity that weighed upon my heart, but idly loitering near it. I stood upon a chair when I was left alone, and looked into the glass to see how red my eyes were, and how sorrowful my face.....I am sensible of having felt that a dignity attached to me among the rest of the boys, and that I was important in my affliction....." When I saw them glancing at me out of the windows, as they went up to their classes, I felt distinguished, and looked more melancholy and walked slower." This masterly analysis of the reactions of a child prompts us to conclude that in David Copperfield, Dickens has achieved rare success as a delineator of the child-mind.

Dickens's View of Life through the Eyes of Children

      Dickens's child-characters like Dickens himself have vivid imaginations and sensations. The world is seen by them in colors of black and white. It is a place where everything looks bigger than it actually is; Where wicked people appear to be monsters and good people are fairies or good angels. They do not look at life with rational eyes nor are they ashamed of sentiments. This is how children see life and this is how Dickens saw it too. Commenting on this aspect in Dickens Lord David Cecil remarks, "Who that has read it can forget the vast, sinister marsh of Great Expectations, with the convict rising like a giant of the fairy-tales from is banks.......But still better are the first hundred and sixty pages of David Copperfield, the best Dickens ever wrote, one of the very best in the whole of English. Here for once Dickens seems not only living but life-like; for though the world that he reveals is more exaggerated, lit by brighter lights, darkened by sharper shadows than that of most grown-up people, it is exactly the world as seen through the eyes of a child."

Dual Interpretation

      Most of Dickens's novels, and particularly David Copperfield can be read either from the child's point of view or the adult's point of view. A particular scene in Dickens can be seen as a wild burlesque or a sinister reality depending on the way you look at it. For a child, the scene in which David is unjustly suspected of eating the muttonchops will be a mortifying experience but an adult reader may view it simply as an example of a waiter's dishonesty. Adult readers may consider Mr. Murdstone to be a matter-of-fact business-man who is always guided by self-interest but every child we may be sure will take him to be a monster. Grown-up readers may not consider Steerforth in a very favorable light but to David and his young friends he is a hero. Dickens is an expert at creating such characters who appear in different shades of light to different age groups. In fact, they appear as completely different persons to a child and a grown up. It is due to this reason that Dickens is so popular among different age groups.


      We can conclude after having made this critical survey that Dickens had a true sympathy for children. He himself had suffered the horrors in London when he was just a child of ten years age. The wounds his sensitive soul then received never fully healed and he carried the scar in his mind for the rest of his life. This early exposure to suffering made him very sensitive towards the feelings and sensibilities of children. These experiences developed in Dickens a passionate sympathy for the poor, suffering, parentless children who were condemned to suffer in a hostile world. Thus he was able to create such immortal studies of childhood like those of Paul, David and Pip. However; when Dickens strays away from the delineation of the child-mind he is on unsure ground. After the first hundred and sixty pages of David Copperfield, the vision of childhood disappears as David grows up. One feels that David too fades into the background and it is remarkable how the author loses his grasp over reality. The author's imaginative faculty seems to decline as David grows up into adulthood and the book draws to a close.


"As David grows out of his childhood the reader's interest in his concern tends to decline". Do you agree? Illustrate your answers.

Do you agree with the view that in David Copperfield, Dickens's strength lies in capturing the child's view of human beings, and not the normal view?

"It is hard to overpraise Dickens's sketches of child-life. He did not describe a child - he became a child for the time being." Discuss with reference to David Copperfield.

Estimate the success of Dickens as a delineator of the child mind with special reference to David Copperfield.

Write a note Dickens's treatment of children with particular reference to David. Copperfield.

"The earlier part of David Copperfield is a profoundly studied portrait of childhood." Discuss.

Consider Charles Dickens as a writer fully capable of deep insight into, and convincing portrayal of childhood.

"It is only when writing more or less in his own person, as David Copperfield or as Pip, that he succeeds in presenting character as commonly seen. Then he can do so in the most masterly fashion, even though he is writing as an adult remembering his childhood." Elaborate on the remark in context of David Copperfield.

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